Non-Reductionist Materialism, Part I: What Is It?

I would now like to discuss reductionism, which I think is one of our society’s conceptual blockages to moral and social progress.  Reductionism is a form of analysis based on taking things apart and examining the small pieces to determine their properties, in order to create a description of how larger things function in terms of their smaller components.  It is also sometimes called the resolutive-compositive method: as when one disassembles an engine, resolving it down to its parts, and then re-assembles the engine into its composite form again, to see how the parts work both individually and together.

Reductionism is the predominant method of modern science, especially the physical sciences.  Although the sciences do at times make use of more holistic analyses, and have shown somewhat more willingness to do so since the 1960s, reductionist approaches are, I think, generally considered to be necessary for doing science.  This approach is a very valuable one for many purposes and has produced a great many benefits, and my aim is certainly not to attack science, or to claim that reductionism is methodologically wrong, but only to argue that it is a limited form of analysis that should only be understood as one of the analytical tools in our intellectual toolbox.  Reductionism, when taken to extremes, can lead to a sort of atomistic fundamentalism: the belief that not only is our universe made up of particles (meaning not just atomic and sub-atomic particles but whatever the smallest quantum fluctuations), but that these particles are fundamental, definitive of reality itself.  The universe, of course, consists of particles, but they are only units of analysis for one level of observing reality; one can also rationally say that reality consists of larger objects too.  I would like to show that particles are not definitive of reality. More on levels of analysis in a moment.

There is another, different sense of the term “reductionism” which is often used in philosophical and intellectual debates, as when a critic claims a theory “reduces” something to one cause or explanation only.  To take an example from the social sciences, mainstream economics can be faulted for reducing human psychological motivations to self-interest, thus neglecting other motivations such as common identity, group interest, or sympathy.  This sense of the term “reductionism” thus basically positively contrasts multi-perspectivism with what we might call uni-perspectivism, and is different than the atomistic reductionism defined above.  Sometimes these terms overlap, however, as when scientists and science-minded thinkers reduce everything to reductionism, that is, when they boil things down to the small, and take that to give a complete picture of reality.  Thinking that the only true reality is the particulate is an extreme form of reductionism, and I have talked to some scientists who believe that; even when that extreme view isn’t held, the particulate is often privileged above other levels of analysis as somehow being “more real.”  

Let me give an example at this point to clarify: before me as I write is a coffee table.  That coffee table can be examined at many different levels, small and large.  One can examine it at the atomic, subatomic, and quantum levels and find out many interesting and valuable things about its small bits.  But we can already imagine some limitations of only sticking with this level of analysis.  Just by looking at, say, the electrons or protons of its atoms we could not tell that they belong to a coffee table, rather than, say, a carpet or an elephant.  Indeed, at that level a scientist wouldn’t be able to tell where the particles of the coffee table end and those of other objects begin.  While examining the table’s atomic structure would help to know some of its properties such as hardness, that wouldn’t help us know its shape or dimensions or age or many other properties.  

If we move up in our analysis to the level of molecules we can say that some of the table is made of organic material (wood, and the polymers of the paint) and some of is of metal (the nails and screws).  Moving up from molecules to the cellular level we can start to see the structure and density of its cellulosic fibers.  If we then look at the table from a larger but still precise mid-level mechanical level, a carpenter could measure (to various degrees of tolerance) the size of the nails and holes, the thickness of the paint, and the dimensions of the parts.  We could also at this level define the boundaries that distinguish it from other objects.

Now if we take a step back and observe the whole table as a mid-level object, we can assess its size in relation to the other objects in the room, see its color under various lighting conditions, pick it up and measure its weight, and so on.  At this point we have taken in the whole of the table as an individual object, but we are not finished, because the table exists in relation to other things.  It is an object used by members of a conscious species for certain purposes, and they experience and judge the table in light of those purposes: does the table properly perform its function of supporting objects at a certain height?  Does it look good as part of the room and in relation to the other objects in it?  The table may also be part of the context of a family; perhaps it was an heirloom or a gift.  The table is also part of a larger social system of production and consumption, i.e. it is an economic good: someone made it, and earned a living by doing so.  Or, more accurately, many people helped make it, people organized into a particular form of economic structure (a corporation), which is itself part of a larger economic, political, and social system.  And the table is also part of wider nature as a moment in a cycle of resource use: its components were once trees on the land and metal under the ground, and eventually it will go into a garbage pile, and the biosphere will do its work cause age and decay and return to the earth.  The table is thus part of the larger system of the biosphere.  None of this, obviously, would be perceivable through a reductionist analysis alone.

Larger even still, the table is a part of Earth’s gravitational system and is thus stuck fast to the planet’s surface.  Even the moon and the other bodies of the solar system exert a little gravitational tug on it, and so it is also a part of that larger system, and eventually all that the table once was will be swallowed up by our sun when it expands to become a red giant.  Indeed, the table is part of the gravitational systems of the Milky Way galaxy and of the universe as a whole, and is touched by the cosmos: at night, when it is dark and I leave the window shades open, the light of distant suns billions of light years from here touches my table.  

The table exists at all these levels, in all these ways, and the universe itself does not hold any of them to be more or less important than any other.  The universe itself is not an intelligent being; it has no point of view on the matter, and so it does not set up any level as the privileged one, including the reductionist level.  That is a fully human prejudice.  The table exists as a composition of microscopic particles, true enough.  But it also exists, really exists, as a mid-level physical object, and as a smaller part of larger social, global, planetary, and interstellar systems.*  The same is the case for all the other things we experience: tables, chairs, houses, cars, animals, our individual selves, societies, language, or anything else.  We have become so used to thinking in reductionist terms that it can be hard to grasp that mid- and large-scale objects are fully real.  

There may be goods reasons to sometimes use reductionist analysis, but is no reason to ontologically privilege it.  The universe doesn’t, so why should we?  We humans might engage in or carry out an analysis of small things for certain purposes, as when a chemist wants to determine a better glue for holding the cellulose of future coffee tables together.  But there are other purposes for which a reductionist analysis is altogether unnecessary and in many cases inappropriate, misleading, and wasteful.  A carpenter or furniture maker usually need not use an electron microscope or conduct a chemical analysis to make a prize piece of furniture.  Indeed, for a carpenter to think much, or at all, about the atoms of the thing is a waste of time and mental effort.  A political theorist need not make a reductionist analysis either to assess the efficiency or the justice of an economic system of which the table is a part.  Quantum physics is, in fact, completely irrelevant for such an analysis.  But both the carpenter and the political philosopher are doing perfectly legitimate, perfectly necessary forms of thinking and analysis.  

In December 2011 I attended a lecture/debate at the National Association for the Advancement of Science entitled “Can Science Explain Everything,” which included as one of the featured speakers Harvard physicist Lisa Randall, whom made and excellent presentation overall.  She laid out a view of the world as consisting of a scale from the quantum level of smallness to the cosmic level of largeness, and noted that we inhabit a middle position in which our normal scale of perception in in meters.  She thought that these scales were sublime, that people use different approaches, including science, art and religion, for different scales, and she also acknowledged that wholes are not necessarily the mere sum of their parts.  Her position, however, seemed to be that the components of things are fundamental, and she used the phrase “fundamental ingredients” repeatedly.  The example that she gave was that of a soufflé: a soufflé is made of fundamental ingredients, and you can’t make a soufflé without them.  The implication seemed to be that the ingredients were “fundamental” and should have ontological priority because, obviously, if you don’t have the parts of an object, then you don’t have the object.  Take away the ingredients, and poof! – you don’t have a soufflé.  And she is entirely right and that is not controversial.  However, there is more to the story: while you can’t make a soufflé without ingredients, you also can’t make one without a cook.  Or a soufflé pan.  Or an oven.  I’m not being facetious here, I’m being entirely serious: you need these things (and many more) to make a soufflé just as much as you need ingredients, and its existence depends on them.  While the smaller ingredients are necessary, these larger aspects of context are necessary too for the existence of the soufflé.  It’s the same for other, larger objects:  there must be an economy that supplies the ingredients for the food and the items to cook it, a society that trains cooks, a culture that records soufflé recipes, the kind of planet and biosphere that provides the ingredients, etc.  If the reason that the ingredients, the small bits, are ontologically fundamental is because the souffle’s existence depends on them, then the larger aspects of context have to count as ontologically fundamental too. There is no reason to privilege small ingredients; all levels are real.

Thus it is no use to say that reductionism describes the universe merely because it describes the behavior of particles, for there is so much reality going on at larger levels that a reductionist approach does not explain.  So it doesn’t describe the universe, or not completely, anyway, and leaving out other forms of analysis suitable to higher levels is a mistake that, I will argue later, leaves us unable to make necessary distinctions and evaluations of the qualitative aspects of the world, and therefore cripples the mental capacity called judgment.  And if we are to solve our moral, social, and even our environmental problems then we need to develop new habits of thought based on a non-reductive materialism that facilitates the development of a better sense of that judgment.

* Social systems are just as physical and material as the other systems, although that claim will have to be elaborated upon elsewhere.

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